Once part of the Nortel Networks empire, Netgear broke free in 2002 with the aim of concentrating on the small to medium business (SMB) networking sector. It has done this with a vengeance and has now captured a sizeable chunk of the UK market. Netgear has worked hard on providing an end-to-end networking solution and the latest FSM7326P Ethernet switch not only delivers Layer 3 routing but complements this with full support for the PoE (power over Ethernet) specification making it a good choice for companies looking to implement wireless networks.

PoE is an important feature in enterprise wireless networks, as it vastly reduces installation times. Compliant access points can shake off the physical limitations of the power socket and be placed in locations such as ceilings for improved coverage. The IEEE's 802.3af has matured (and we explain in detail here, and discuss its use in office WLANs here) and is now available in products. During 2003, the price of PoE ports was high, but at the end of that year, signs of falling prices emerged. Hewlett-Packard drove the price down to around £60 per powered port. Netgear has been pushing lower cost approaches to WLANs and has decided that its SMB customers want PoE too - so it has knocked an impressive third off HP's price: the FSM7326P's 24 ports work out at around £40 each.

Clothed in Netgear’s trademark blue chassis the switch is solidly built and offers twenty-four dual-speed PoE compliant ports. It’s an end-span PoE switch and provides 48-volts over the same wire pairs as used for data delivery so end devices can be connected directly to the switch and powered using a single cable. Being fully 802.3af compliant, the FSM7326P contains automatic detection circuits that prevent it from sending power to non-compliant terminal devices so only those that present an authenticated PoE signature will receive power.

Gigabit Ethernet is on the menu as Netgear also provides a pair of ‘dual-personality’ uplink ports to one side. These comprise a 1000BaseT copper Gigabit port and - for longer distance links - an SFP (small form factor pluggable) receptacle for fibre, supporting standard mini-GBICs. The front panel provides plenty of status information with a display matrix revealing link status, negotiated speed and activity while a second row gives visual indicators as to which ports are also supplying power. Separate indicators to one side usefully show when PoE limits have maxed out and the optional redundant power supply also gets a status LED.

Internally, the switch packs a reasonable punch for a dual-speed switch as it comes with 128 Mbyte of system memory and has an 8.8 Gbit/s backplane capacity. A good range of Layer 2 features are on offer as the switch supports up to 228 VLANs, 802.1x port authentication, port trunking and port aggregation for creating fault tolerant switch to switch links using multiple ports, However, note that the switch cannot be placed in either a physical or a virtual stack.

Installation is swift as the CLI can be used to provide the switch with a management IP address and then you can move over to the well designed and intuitive browser interface for remote management. Netgear scores over Hewlett-Packard when it comes to access to PoE information as unlike the ProCurve Switch 2626-PWR launched in December, the FSM7326P shows full details of all power-related activity in the web interface and also provides the tools to configure each port’s power settings from here as well. We tested the switch using 3Com’s Wireless Access Point 8200 and NJ205 IntelliJack and both worked fine with the switch. The status screen shows available and used power in Watts while below is a table showing power details on each port including output power in voltage, Watts and mA. You can also select from three power priorities for each port so critical PoE devices receive a supply if the total available is getting low. SNMP traps will also be issued if the chosen power threshold for the switch is exceeded.

The Layer 3 routing capabilities offered by the GSM7324 are impressive as it supports RIP I, RIP II, OSPF v2 (open shortest path first), VLAN routing and VRRP (virtual router redundancy protocol) allowing one router to act as a master router and supported by other routers acting as backups in case of a failure. Many competing vendors provide equivalent switches with only basic Layer 3 routing functions which require an optional software upgrade to support many of these features. However, it is worth noting that the switch is not a multi-protocol router as it doesn’t support IPX and Appletalk.

For the price, the FSM7326P is offering a lot of features and its PoE management facilities are superior to many competing products. Companies who want good PoE facilities and more than basic Layer 3 routing, but don’t want to pay a fortune, would do well to check out this Netgear alternative.

OUR VERDICT

The PoE specification has been slow to take off, with some switch vendors such as Netgear only now supporting it. However, not only does the FSM7326P provide PoE features and remote management facilities that are better than some of the top competition but it delivers a remarkable range of features for the price.